Secrets to the Perfect Pie

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Over the last few years, I’ve gotten over my fear of making pie dough, thanks to practice, culinary school training, and a stint in a restaurant pastry kitchen. But you don’t need to be a pro to bust out a winning pie. As superstar pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini recently scolded a Top Chef contestant: “My grandmother wasn’t a pastry chef, but she could make a pie.” (Oh, snap!)

When we wanted a great all-purpose, slightly lighter pie dough recipe for Nourish Network, we turned to food stylist Kathleen Kanen. She’s a home economist by training who worked in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens for 20 years and currently does freelance food styling and recipe developing for a variety of national outlets (including us!).

Her secret to great pastry? Keep everything cold. I asked her for other tips to ensure your pie turns out perfect every time.

What’s your definition of the perfect pie crust?

I love a crust that’s flaky and has some sugar for sweetness and some salt for flavor. I think many dough recipes don’t call for enough salt, and that makes them taste flat.

What’s your preferred fat for pastry?

A combination of butter for flavor and shortening for flakiness. Also, the shortening doesn’t harden, which makes the dough easier to roll so there’s less chance of overworking it.

What’s the best way to cut the fat into the flour–in a food processor, with a pastry blender, or with your fingers?

The easiest way is the food processor. Just pulse the mixture a few times so it doesn’t get warm and the fat melts into the flour. [Those little chunks of cold fat make the pastry flaky.] It should look like coarse crumbs.

What are your tips for working with a lower-fat crust?

Three things: cold fats, chilling the dough, and plastic wrap!

  1. Chill the butter and shortening for a flaky crust. For an even flakier crust, chill the flour, too.
  2. Add just enough ice water to moisten the dough. Add too much, and the dough will be soggy. Add too little, and it will be crumbly. Press a small amount of dough between your fingers to check the consistency. If it’s too crumbly, add another tablespoon of water.
  3. Handle the dough gently. Overworking it develops the gluten in the flour and makes the crust tough.
  4. Chill the dough to help relax the gluten.
  5. Roll the dough between sheets of plastic wrap [a trick Kathleen learned in the Cooking Light Test Kitchens] to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Chill the dough again after rolling it to make it easier to remove the plastic wrap. It’s not a step to rush.

Any tips for rolling out the dough so it’s even?

Begin rolling in the center and stop about 1/2 inch from the edge so it doesn’t get too thin and crumble. I start rolling in the middle of the dough vertically, then horizontally, then diagonally.

Which camp do you fall in: top crust or lattice?

I love pastry, so my favorite is a top crust. Lattice is very pretty, but not enough crust for me! [If you prefer a lattice crust, check out Saveur’s instructions to weave one.]

Here’s Kathleen’s recipe for peach pie with a foolproof dough. Use this crust for pies made with whatever fresh, seasonal fruit is on hand. I can’t wait to try it with apples in the fall, and for savory pies like quiches too.

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Kathleen’s Fresh Peach Pie with Toasted Walnut Crust

By Kathleen Kanen

Ground nuts and a touch of whole-wheat pastry flour give this peach pie crust recipe a healthier edge. It also has less fat than traditional pastry, yet there’s enough to make it satisfyingly tender. As with any pastry, handle the dough gently (so it doesn’t get tough) and don’t skip chilling it for 30 minutes. That helps the gluten relax and makes a more tender pie crust. I use the chilling time to peel the fruit and assemble the filling.

For variety, you can substitute cherries and/or blueberries for half the peaches. Taste the fruit first and adjust the sugar in the filling accordingly. Same goes for amount of flour in the filling. Really juicy peaches may need an extra tablespoon of flour; not so juicy, use less flour. This peach pie is is the essence of summer!

Kathleen’s Fresh Peach Pie with Toasted Walnut Crust

Prep Time: 45 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Kathleen’s Fresh Peach Pie with Toasted Walnut Crust


  1. Pastry Dough:
  2. 1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
  3. 2/3 cup white whole-wheat pastry flour
  4. 1/4 cup finely ground toasted walnuts or almonds
  5. 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  6. 3/4 teaspoon salt
  7. 1/4 cup butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
  8. 1/4 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
  9. 6 to 8 tablespoons ice water
  10. Filling and Finish:
  11. 6 cups sliced peeled fresh peaches (about 4 pounds)
  12. 6 tablespoons granulated sugar
  13. 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  14. 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  15. 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  16. 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  17. 1/8 teaspoon sea salt
  18. 1 tablespoon cold butter, cut into 6 pieces
  19. Nonstick cooking spray
  20. 1 large egg white, lightly beaten
  21. 1 teaspoon water
  22. 1 tablespoon turbinado or granulated sugar


To prepare pastry dough, combine first 5 ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse 2 times. Add 1/4 cup butter and shortening, and pulse 4 times, or just until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Transfer flour mixture to a large bowl. Add ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, tossing with a fork just until moistened. Gently gather dough into a ball. Divide dough in half and press each portion into a 4-inch circle. Wrap each portion in plastic wrap and chill 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375 F.

While the dough chills, prepare the filling. Combine peaches, 6 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1/4 cup all-purpose flour, juice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

Remove 1 portion of dough from refrigerator. Place dough between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and roll dough into a 12-inch circle. Refrigerate 15 minutes or until plastic can be removed. Repeat with remaining dough portion.

Remove top sheet of plastic from 1 dough portion. Place dough, plastic side up, in a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate (not deep dish) coated with cooking spray. Remove top sheet of plastic wrap, allowing ends of dough to extend over sides of pie plate. Spoon peach mixture into pie plate and dot with pieces of butter. Whisk together egg white and 1 teaspoon water. Lightly brush edges of dough with egg white mixture.

Remove plastic from remaining portion of dough and gently place dough over pie. Seal edges of dough and flute. Lightly brush top of dough with egg white mixture; sprinkle with 1 tablespoon turbinado sugar. Cut 6 slits in top of pie to allow steam to escape.

Bake at 375 for 50 to 55 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown and filling is bubbly. Lightly shield edges of pie with foil during last 10 minutes, if necessary. Cool completely on a wire rack.

  • J.E

    There is nothing healthier about this pie! The crust alone is over 200 calories per serving, if you cut the pie into 10 pieces.

  • liahuber

    It does seem decadent, doesn’t it? and it is–definitely not an every night affair, but at 374 calories for an 1/8 of the pie, well within a healthy splurge.

    What makes this pie extra nourishing are little shifts like substituting 1/3 whole wheat flour for white, and letting the fruit shine through in the filling instead of butter (just 1 tablespoon) and sugar (less than 1/2 cup).

    To me this pie is proof that healthy doesn’t have to mean deprivation, but it should mean making wise choices.